Evidence being presented for an upcoming trial in Chicago is raising more questions about the extent the U.S. Justice Department might have contributed to violence in Mexico’s war with drug cartels.
Documents filed on behalf of accused drug lord Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla say the Justice Department agreed to protect him from prosecution in exchange for information about other drug cartels.
Zambada, 36, is the son of an alleged leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel that operates in Mexico’s western states. The cartel is accused of murders, gunrunning, drug smuggling, bribery of public officials and attacks on police.
The Justice Department gave the Sinaloa cartel’s leaders “carte blanche to continue to smuggle tons of illicit drugs into Chicago and the rest of the United States,” according to pre-trial documents filed by Zambada’s attorneys.
If true, the allegations could revive political outrage against U.S. law enforcement agencies for their tactics against the Mexican drug cartels.
They already suffered criticism from Congress for a program to track gun smugglers called Operation Fast and Furious. The operation allowed thousands of guns to be smuggled into Mexico so the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could trace them to the cartels that were using them for murder and other acts of violence.
However, some of the guns never were recovered. Others were recovered only after they had been used to commit murder.
The Mexican government responded by accusing U.S. law enforcement agencies of irresponsibly promoting violence across the border. The U.S. Congress investigated.
In the case against Zambada, he claims he cannot be prosecuted under the drug charges against him because of an immunity agreement with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He said he was “betrayed” by U.S. authorities.
He also says the DEA gave the same immunity to Joaquin Guzman Loera, nicknamed El Chapo, or “Shorty.”
Guzman is at the top of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list and listed in 2010 by Forbes Magazine as one of “The World’s Most Powerful People” for his role as the Sinaloa cartel’s leader.
Guzman still is operating in Mexico after escaping from a maximum security prison in 2001 only days before he was scheduled to be extradited to the United States.
Zambada’s court filings said the DEA agreed to avoid giving information to the Mexican government that could lead to the arrest of the Sinaloa cartel leaders.
Prosecutors are demanding concrete information of the immunity agreement. So far, Zambada’s statements are the only evidence of the collaboration with the DEA.
He was arrested at a Mexico City hotel on March 17, 2009 and later extradited to the United States. His trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 13, 2012.
Zambada is charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and heroin. He faces possible life imprisonment. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
An indictment accuses Zambada of using “every conceivable means of transport” to move drugs into the Chicago area, where it was distributed throughout the United States. The indictment says Zambada sent huge amounts of money back to Mexico.
His means of transporting drugs allegedly included a Boeing 747 airplane, cargo ships, submarines, rail cars, trucks, speedboats and fishing boats.
Zambada’s lawyers say all of the alleged crimes occurred between Jan. 1, 2004 and March 19, 2009, which was a period covered by the immunity agreement with the DEA.
Under the immunity agreement, Sinaloa cartel leaders were “informed by agents of the DEA through [their attorney] that United States government agents and/or Mexican authorities were conducting investigations near the home territories of cartel leaders so that the cartel leaders could take appropriate actions to evade investigators,” a July 29 court filing by Zambada’s attorneys says.
It also says that “Mr. Zambada Niebla believed that under the prior agreement, any activities of the Sinaloa cartel, including the kind described in the indictment, were covered by the agreement, and that he was immune from arrest or prosecution.”